Matthew Garrett ([personal profile] mjg59) wrote2013-10-15 10:10 am
Entry tags:

Hacker News is a social echo chamber

Hacker News is a fairly influential link aggregation site, with stories submitted and voted on by users. As explained in the FAQ, the ranking of stories is roughly determined by the number of votes divided by a function of the time since submission. It's not a huge traffic driver (my personal experience of stories on the front page is on the order of 30,000 hits), but it's notable because the demographic tends to include a more technically literate and influential set of readers than most other sites. The discussion that ensues from technical posts often includes meaningful feedback from domain experts. Stories that appear there are likely to be noted by technology workers, especially in the Silicon Valley startup field[1].

That rather specific demographic appears to correlate with other traits. There's a rather more techno-libertarian bias on Hacker News than on most general discussion forums, which is consistent with the startup-oriented culture that it springs from - the desire to provide disruptive solutions to real world problems tends to collide with existing regulatory frameworks, so it's unsurprising that a belief in individual rights and small government would overlap with US startup culture. There's a leaning towards the use of web technologies rather than traditional client applications, which matches what people are doing in the rest of the world. And there's more enthusiasm for liberal open-source licenses over Copyleft licenses, which makes sense in a web-focused environment (as I wrote about here).

Now, personally I'm a big-government, client-app, Copyleft kind of person, but for the most part I don't think the above is actively dangerous. It's inevitable that political views will vary, we'll probably continue to cycle between thick and thin clients for generations and nobody's ever going to demonstrably prove that one licensing model deserves to win over another. But what is important is that the ongoing debates between these opinions be driven by facts, and that it remain obvious that these disagreements exist. As far as technical (and even political) discussion goes, Hacker News doesn't seem to
have a problem with that. Disagreeing with the orthodoxy is tolerated.

This seems less true when it comes to social issues. When a posting discussing the myth of the natural born programmer[2] hit the front page, the top rated comment is Paul Graham[3] off-handedly discounting the conclusions drawn. The original story linked to a review of peer-reviewed scientific research. Graham simply discounts it on the basis of his preconceptions. Shortly afterwards, the story plummeted off the front page, now surrounded by stories posted around the same time but with much lower scores.

How does this happen? There's two publicised methods which can result in stories dropping down the order. Users with high karma scores (either via submitting popular stories or writing popular comments) are able to flag submissions, and if enough do so then a negative weighting is applied to the story. There's also a flamewar detector, a heuristic that attempts to detect contentious subjects and pushes them off the front page.

The effect of both is to enforce the status quo of social beliefs. Stories that appear to challenge the narrative that good programmers are just naturally talented tend to vanish. Stories that discuss the difficulties faced by minorities in our field are summarily disappeared. There are no social problems in the technology industry. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

This isn't healthy. We don't improve the state of the software industry by hiding stories that expose conflicts. Flamewars don't solve problems, but without them we'd be entirely unaware of how much of a victim blaming mentality exists amongst our peers. It's true that conflict may reinforce preconceptions, causing people to dig in as they defend their beliefs. However, the absence of conflict does nothing to counteract that. If you're never exposed to opinions you disagree with, you'll never question your existing beliefs.

Hacker News is a privately run site and nobody's under any obligation to change how they choose to run it. But the focus on avoiding conflict to such an extent that controversial stories receive less exposure than ones that fit people's existing beliefs doesn't enhance our community. If we want to be able to use technology as an instrument of beneficial change to society as a whole, we benefit from building a diverse and welcoming community and questioning our preconceptions. Building a social echo chamber risks marginalising us from the rest of society, gradually becoming ignored and irrelevant as our self-reinforcing opinions drift ever further away from the mainstream. It doesn't help anybody.

[1] During the batch of interviews I did last year, two separate interviewers both mentioned a story they'd read on Hacker News that turned out to have been written by me. I'm not saying that that's what determined a hire/don't hire decision, but it seems likely that it helped.
[2] The article in question discusses the pervasive idea that some people are inherently good programmers. It turns out that perpetuating the idea that some people are just born good at a particular skill actually discourages others from even trying to learn it, even those who are just as capable.
[3] One of the co-founders of Y-Combinator and creator of Hacker News.

(Edited to fix a footnote reference)

Hacker News alternatives

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:12 pm (UTC)(link)
Out of curiosity, where do you like to read your news?

Re: Hacker News alternatives

(Anonymous) 2013-10-17 01:06 am (UTC)(link)
I have seen comments from mjg59 on a lot.
I would assume that is a primary source of news.

You don't disagree with PG or you get shadow banned

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:22 pm (UTC)(link)
The rule is: Don't disagree with PG or you will find yourself shadowbanned.

This goes also for: Don't criticize YC funded startups and generally don't offend mods. (The last part is the most difficult one because you don't know what could offend a mod.)

If you want really open discussions seek sites that don't have karma systems implemented. Because with karma the local hive mind always will win.

/signed a HN user with high karma

Re: You don't disagree with PG or you get shadow banned

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:48 pm (UTC)(link)
It is not a site where critical thinking is tolerated.

Don't disagree with PG, and don't touch the third rails:

1. Don't talk about Apple in a neutral or positive light = Shadoban
2. Don't provide scientific evidence in a science argument that goes against leftist orthodoxy = shadow ban
3. Don't try to explain economics because anything that disagrees with Paul Krugman or the pseudo-Keynesianism that they keep repeating is not tolerated = shadow ban
4. Don't think for yourself= shadow ban

The site is very popular with 20 somethings right out of american colleges who have no real world experience and thus know nothing beyond what their leftist professors drilled into their brains.

Re: You don't disagree with PG or you get shadow banned

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Re: You don't disagree with PG or you get shadow banned

(Anonymous) - 2013-10-15 17:15 (UTC) - Expand

Re: You don't disagree with PG or you get shadow banned

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 06:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Also, don't elucidate how the site could so easily be improved - your post will sink like a stone.

What HN is

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:28 pm (UTC)(link)
HN is basically the most important part of YC -- the branding part.

If it didn't exist, many of the very successful startups it has a stake in likely would not have applied to it.

Now, one of HN's most important functions is to 1) advertise the YC-funder startups, or at least raise their name-recognition, b) advertise YC, advertise the VC's, and c) jobs ads for YC companies.

HN and pg whatever it can to optimize these 3 functions.

Re: What HN is

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I just created r/TrueHN (what r/TrueReddit is to Reddit), so we can have the HN we used to love but without all the YC preferences and without the opaque moderating rules.

Just created it a few minutes ago,

I'll try to submit lots of relevant stuff soon.

Re: What HN is - A filter to find YES BOYS

(Anonymous) - 2013-10-15 16:53 (UTC) - Expand

Re: What HN is

(Anonymous) - 2013-10-15 16:59 (UTC) - Expand

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:31 pm (UTC)(link)
For me the worst part of HN is the constantly shifting, undocumented system that goes into moderation and flagging. These tools seem to only function for people who fit the narrative PG wants to exist. If you dare to downvote or flag anyone they're fond of, despite how utterly detached from reality and asinine the comments tend to be from some of the bigger 'name' posters, you will suddenly find yourself unable to participate in shaping discussion and social norms. Or worse, they'll just Hellban you because they're that childish. This makes the entire notion of moderation illusory and deceptive, but I think that fits in with the extremely shallow libertarian mindset HN wants to attract. Those arrows are just there to comfort you into thinking the community is what you make of it rather than what a few make of it. It's frankly insulting.

I was hellbanned for sharing my experience meeting Grace Hopper!

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:56 pm (UTC)(link)


The comment just contained a relating of my experience meeting her, and talking about how I thought of her as a comp sci hero.

I got hellbanned!

I can only figure that one of the moderators had another post in that thread, which was getting most of the karma until I made mine, which was more popular than his.

So he "took me out" for the "crime" of making a more popular comment!

This is the only possible reason as prior to this comment I didn't have an account and made a new account to share that experience.

Flamewars are not equal to vibrant discussions

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 03:45 pm (UTC)(link)
I see your point about flamewars, but you don't discuss the fate of gentle or vibrant (non-ad-hominem) discussions from opposing views which *don't* devolve into shouting matches. Or is your point that such discussions are also inexplicable demoted? I haven't observed that.

Making a point that disagrees = hellbann

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 05:01 pm (UTC)(link)

A leftist can be as insulting, asinine, or engage in ad-hominem on HN without problem, he'll get voted up for agreeing with the hive mind.

But a libertarian who shows up and makes a non-ad hominem comment, or even just links to a scientific paper that disagrees with the leftist ideology, and you get hellbanned.

HN will not tolerate critical thought.

HN is an echo chanber

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I tend to agree whole heartedly with this article, though, I would mention one thing. I tend to find HN to be far less misogynistic than a lot of discussion boards, though indeed far from balanced regarding social issues. That said, it seems to be male oriented, incredibly narcissistic board ("Why I use [insert new fangled json/python tool]", "How I/We got to be so awesome (and you can too!)")

tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (not offended)

[personal profile] tim 2013-10-15 04:26 pm (UTC)(link)
I would go a step further and say that Hacker News is an echo chamber for rape apologists. (And since we know that men who blame victims are men who are more likely to be sexual harassers and rapists themselves, arguably male-dominated sites without effective community moderation like HN play a role in encouraging rape inside and outside the tech community.)
Edited 2013-10-15 16:26 (UTC)
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Re: Bizarre

[personal profile] tim - 2013-10-15 16:59 (UTC) - Expand
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I see you can delete posts you disagree with.

(Anonymous) - 2013-10-15 17:11 (UTC) - Expand

I see only one view is tolerated here.

(Anonymous) - 2013-10-15 17:10 (UTC) - Expand

You think disagreement is tolerated because your ideology is the dominant one

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:42 pm (UTC)(link)
You call yourself a big-government, open-source person, and that is the dominant ideology on hacker news. The fact that smart people are often libertarian means that there's more libertarian there than you might expect, but you cannot be a libertarian on hacker new for long, without getting banned.

Literally, in response to someone spewing global warming pseudo-science, I once linked to a peer reviews paper that disagreed with their claims, and was shadow banned for it.

I cited a paper and got banned from HN. Why? Because HN is ideologically leftist / pro-FSF (anti-open source) / pro-google anti-Apple.

Sure there are people who express opinions contrary to this on HN, but they cannot last long.

The ideological filter and shadow bans from unaccountable mods mean that the site is nothing more than a mindless echo chamber for people who agree to agree with each other.

What's really pathetic and alarming is just how much these people think they are having "intelligent" discussions, when any independant thought is ruthlessly purged from the site.

I blame Paul Graham, who has already repeatedly shown himself to be a man with no ethics (look at the lies he told in the AirBnB trashed apartment scandal) for this.

The site was created to foster a cult of personality for himself, and to groom innocent children to be exploited by his "accelerator".

Hacker News is a cult, with ruthless ideological filtering.

Not just social issues, also tech

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:49 pm (UTC)(link)
The flagging + flamewar detector combo also affects a lot of legitimate stories, which are then sunk off the front page. I've seen a bunch of people(some of who got hellbanned over it) complain that it disproportionately affects a lot of legitimate pro-Apple, pro-Microsoft, anti-Samsung, anti-Google/Android articles.

For example look at this page(copy paste since links are not allowed in comments) to see a couple of stories about Samsung's bad practices buried quickly.

Since the process is so opaque, it's hard to tell whether people are doing it on purpose or it's the flamewar detector that's causing it.

This attitude also affects comments, it's not uncommon to see commenters who got hellbanned over posting something that's anti-Google or pro-Apple/Microsoft.

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 04:55 pm (UTC)(link)
PG was responding directly to the bizarre claim made by the original blog post that "belief in natural born ability is toxic to all" not to any academic research. research on stereotype threat (if we accept it as valid and well replicated -- not a given) does not imply that natural ability is a harmful and mistaken belief.
zorkian: Icon full of binary ones and zeros in no pattern. (Default)

[personal profile] zorkian 2013-10-15 05:08 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, I'm not really a fan of HN -- but since I fit the demographic it's comfortable, and I really do like reading about all the fancy stuff going on in my industry (as, in the end, I do work with most of these companies/people).

That said, it makes me sad, and I don't really know what to do about it. HN succeeds, in part, because groups like YC and pg who make it succeed. Sharding the market and having a "socially thoughtful" group probably doesn't help, because then we just have two echo chambers.

If you have thoughts on how to improve this, I'd love to hear them.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)

[personal profile] tim 2013-10-15 05:30 pm (UTC)(link)
An echo chamber isn't a bad thing when it's supportive, rather than being a group that amplifies the dominant culture's toxic views. Since I have to deal with people just like the ones leaving anonymous comments in this post (they're more subtle when interacting in person) every single day, I don't feel I'm missing out on anything when I go to a private space that's limited to people who support intersectional feminism. I'm in no danger of not hearing the opinions of patriarchy-supporting rape apologists.
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I Posted This and it was Disappeared

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 05:47 pm (UTC)(link)
Yep, let's ignore the main issues raised by the post and have a meta discussion instead.

- Leftist orthodoxy (Keynesian good/Austrian bad, etc.)
- Disappearing dissenters (HeckBanning, NegVotesToOblivion)
- Apple the Immaculate (and Saint Jobs the Perfect)
- All startups are equal (but YC's are more equaler than others)

Please HeckBan this and prove the points made about HN's accoustics and whatnot. Whatever you do, must not upArrow and offend the hive mind.

shark jumping

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 06:04 pm (UTC)(link)
Slashdot used to be a really cool place to read about Linux. Then there was IBM vs. SCO, Columbine and Jon Katz. HN used to be a really cool place to read about the most recent trends in web development. Then there was Bitcoin, Snowden etc. The technical has been pushed out, and the nontechnical discussions are very shrill and very shallow. Time to move on.

Tracking this story on Hacker News

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 06:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Why am I not surprised? The readers of HN put this on the #1 position on the front page, and the moderators buried ( it in short order.

So... an article you liked got voted down

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 07:02 pm (UTC)(link)
Well colour me surprised -- a site that caters to a demographic doesn't carry an article that's hostile to that demographic. I bet that besides self-righteous minority-pandering it also doesn't carry feminist screeds against video games, or catfights from the shipping (previously known as "slashfic") community.

It'd be far less healthy for a site to shift from a circlejerk to a "why you, the reader, are an awful toxic jerk!" flamefest-carrier. If anything, the two mechanisms you posit make Hackernews resistant to entryist takeover as a throw-away activist platform.
kallistixf: A golden apple with Kallisti written on it in Greek (kallisti)

Yeah really

[personal profile] kallistixf 2013-10-15 07:33 pm (UTC)(link)
Well said.

There are several good examples of this from 2010/2011 in comments on Liminal States. This was before they changed the behavior to hide how many votes each comment had so it really gives a clear picture of community sentiment. There are examples of gender, ageism, and civil liberties [a place where HN's techno-libertariasm clashes with the "let's not talk about civil liberties here" attitude).

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 09:32 pm (UTC)(link)
It's certainly a weakness of reputation-based systems. In theory, they sound great, a way of drowning out the trolls and spam, and giving weight to people with a history of positive contributions. But in practice, it's hard to avoid the situation described here, where the only way to gain reputation is by agreeing with the people who already have it...

(Anonymous) 2013-10-15 11:24 pm (UTC)(link)
Hacker News has major, major problems, but this article is complete nonsense. Preconceptions, my ass, eh? How about the author's own preconceptions?

Whether or not people are different at birth seems to be a major sticking point for a certain category of publicists, a type I am all too familiar with. Whenever you mention it, those seemingly rational individuals will try to deny facts to the extent that will make global warming skeptics seem downright cute by comparison.

Eagerly awaiting for the next utopianist editorial about how the world consists of sugar and spice and we are all the same on the inside and if only the powers that be enforced it.

The sky is blue.

(Anonymous) 2013-10-16 12:54 am (UTC)(link)
Except at night.

This is how on line forums work. This is how sports bars work (pick a team). This is how *people* work.

I'm not saying it's right in some way but rather that these sites don't have a magical solution to the wider problem. Don't expect forums to solve everything. Treat almost every (well, ok, every) forum as a viewpoint and not as a collection of viewpoints.

(And I need to fix my OpenID. ugh. Using a dead provider.)

Disappearing stories

(Anonymous) 2014-05-21 05:57 pm (UTC)(link)
I just watched a story go from number 1 on HN down to the 3rd page almost instantly.

Its URL is . The title is "How I Feel as Young Father Involved in Early-stage Startup". The story and the comments did not cast a good light on startups in general.

Since Hacker News is nothing but a promotional tool for Y Combinator, I image Paul Graham or one of his goons decided that such stories were bad for business, and promptly dropped it in the toilet.

I consider Hacker News to be essentially a type of cult.
reddragdiva: (Default)

[personal profile] reddragdiva 2014-10-30 09:18 pm (UTC)(link)
The key point is: the actual purpose of Hacker News is to find good recruits for Y! Combinator. All us people talking about stuff, we're not the customers or even the product. That is the thing HN is for, and that is who its customer is. So yeah, it's amusing, but it's going to be shit in Silicon Valley technobert ways.